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Distractions in Tiger's personal life are going to make beating Jack's major record that much harder

Tiger Woods, masters
Robert Beck/SI
Tiger Woods still needs to win four majors to tie Jack Nicklaus's record.

And now back to the golf.

Before US Weekly became a bigger golf story than Boo Weekley, and before anyone had heard of Jaimee Grubbs, all seemed aligned for Tiger Woods to have a monster 2010.

He'll be defending champion of sorts at both the U.S. (Pebble Beach) and British (St. Andrews) Opens, having won those tournaments the last time they were played at those venues, making it seem all the more likely that he would nab his 15th and 16th major titles next summer. He still might. It would put him on the verge of surpassing Jack Nicklaus, whose 18 major professional titles remain the gold standard.

But if we've learned anything from this year, including this bizarre peek into Woods's Clintonian personal life, it is this: If Tiger is to top Jack, as has long been predicted, he probably won't be blowing the doors off the old master at 120 mph like we once thought was a fait accompli.

Forget Phil. What will Tiger do next? Spill everything in one big steaming heap to Barbara Walters and be done with it? Blame the Florida Highway Patrol? This is what Woods now ponders in lieu of things that might actually help him win at Augusta for the first time since 2005, or atone for his major-less 2009.

Maybe he cancels the 2010 season to glue the pieces of his life back together. Maybe he potatoes-out for a while and tries to digest the excruciating last seven days. Or maybe he walks away from it all, for good. Going rogue, they call it.

The fact is that Tiger's got a lot more to worry about than winning at least five more majors, or hated Cal's recent victory over Stanford's favored football team — a game Woods attended. (Note to Cardinal brass: In retrospect this might not have been the right year to let Tiger flip the coin.)

Woods's actions and words will be parsed endlessly in the 24/7 news cycle, as will those of his wife, Elin, and "the other woman," Grubbs, if that's what she was. The late-night comedians will tee off. We've seen this movie before.

What we haven't seen is how it all might impact one of the most celebrated sporting careers of all time. Woods, who saw his body fail him in 2008, now appears hobbled by a failure of judgment that dates back to April 13, 2007, when Grubbs claims the two met at a nightclub. She asserts it marked the beginning of their 31-month affair, and Woods has not denied it.

From a golf perspective, Woods is still young. He turns 34 later this month and, barring further trouble from his balky left knee, he should have many good years left. He knows winning like Wimpy knew hamburgers.

But Woods was already showing signs of decay before the events of the last week. He can no longer dominate the way he once did because he no longer knows with much certainty where his drives will land. He no longer intimidates the way he did, and he even lost the 54-hole lead at a major for the first time in August, at the PGA Championship. (Grubbs and Tiger's Cadillac Escalade now join Y.E. Yang on the short list of evidence that Woods is human.)

And Yang isn't the only emboldened and/or surging would-be rival. Phil Mickelson is coming off season-ending victories at the Tour Championship and HSBC Champions, both of which Woods also played. Mickelson, born again with the putter and conjuring some of his best golf yet, looks eager for 2010.

What's more, golf's pool of young challengers is deeper than any time in recent memory. Rory McIlroy, Ryo Ishikawa, Jason Day, Anthony Kim, Rickie Fowler — so many phenoms are circling that one seems bound to rise up and take a bite out of Tiger sooner or later.

And now Woods has his messy personal life to ponder.

Golf is not a reaction sport; there's copious time to think, so it's hard to thrive when your life is ground under repair. It may be close to impossible to win a major in that condition, even for a man of such legendary focus as Woods.

Remember, Woods said he tried too hard to win the 2007 Masters for the memory of his recently deceased father, Earl. It didn't work out. Now comes an even greater challenge: performing while patching things up with Elin.

What if she bails? Woods has never hid the fact that for him it's all about the golf, but surely he knows his marriage can't be separated from the rest of his life. He knows that when Jack Nicklaus was asked to explain his success while juggling fatherhood, business obligations and other potential distractions, he always pointed to his wife, Barbara.

Will the father of Sam Alexis (2) and Charlie Axel (10 months) get the same unwavering support from his wife? Golf's first couple, Tiger and Elin, seem to have a lot to talk about.

Woods's relationship with the media, which has been chilly but mostly predictable, is another concern. Will the US story turn up others like it? Will Woods stop holding press conferences at tournaments? He was supposed to have had one at his Chevron World Challenge on Tuesday before he withdrew from the tournament that supports his foundation.

"I have been dismayed to realize the full extent of what tabloid scrutiny really means," Woods said in Wednesday's statement on tigerwoods.com.

That's hard to believe coming from a man whose life has been exhaustively chronicled since he appeared with Bob Hope on The Mike Douglas Show at age 2. No one doubts Tiger's relentless quest for privacy, and you have to admire his craftiness in maintaining even a shred of it. How many thousands of interviews has he done, and how many times has he said something inexplicably ill advised? (Answer: Only once, telling racy jokes in the presence of a writer from GQ magazine in 1997.)

The rubbernecking is, in an odd way, a compliment to Woods, showing just how good he's been at locking us out. But now the cocoon that allowed him to focus on his game has been broken. He is determined to keep up the good fight, using at least half of his online mea culpa Wednesday to kvetch about the prying press. It seems a losing battle. The media either warm to you early or not, and once momentum is established it's very hard to turn it around. The line on Tiger: He's cold-blooded, a lousy quote, no Arnie Palmer.

That assessment will now get worse before it gets better, if it does get better.

"But no matter how intense curiosity about public figures can be," Woods continued in his apology/manifesto, "there is an important and deep principle at stake which is the right to some simple, human measure of privacy."

Message to the media: You win this round, but the fight isn't over. One wonders how much of Tiger's energy it will sap, and how much of it might have been better spent on the golf course, practice range, or weight room.

In his 1996 Sports Illustrated profile of Woods, Gary Smith wrote of "the machine" of idol worship and celebrity culture, a machine that "has no mind," he wrote. "It flattens even as it lifts, trivializes even as it exalts, spreads a man so wide and thin that he becomes margarine soon enough."

Would Tiger win? Or would the machine?

Three months after falling to Yang, Woods has proved human yet again. He's margarine. He's disappointed his family with "personal failings" and apologized, and now there is work to do. The man who's talked about competing with a "Band-Aid swing" must now heal the rest of his fractured life before he can fully focus on playing golf again.

It took a while, but Woods has finally given in to the machine. Maybe he will win those last five majors, and maybe he'll do it the way he's won the first 14, with talent and nerve. Or maybe he won't make it after all. Only a thousand saucy details remain, and we all eagerly await the final tally of wins, losses and casualties.

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